Work, Wages, and Capitalism

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  • A Book Review of The Story of Work: A New History of Humankind, by Jan Lucassen.

As the subtitle suggests, Jan Lucassen’s massive work of scholarship is ambitious in scope and scale. The entire sweep of human history and the whole of the planet are its canvas and the story it tells and the analysis it sets out are in a very real sense universal. If this is a world history or a history of the human species since the dawn of agriculture, it is also an account built around one single aspect of the human experience-work. In the Bible, work is a central part of the state and condition of humanity after the Fall, along with other inevitabilities such as death. There is something of that in Lucassen’s account at least as far as the centrality of work to human life is concerned. The result is a work of great length and enormous richness. This is a book to be both read closely and systematically and dipped into and consumed in smaller pieces, as there is much to be gained from both the many smaller and more focussed accounts it contains and the larger narratives and analysis that run through the entire work from start to finish.

“Because work usually produces things of value and transforms the physical world in ways that make human life better by various measures (and in the final analysis make basic survival possible—without organised and purposeful productive action, i.e., work, that would not be possible for most people in most times and places) it is at the base of economic order.”

Work as defined in this book is one of the universal elements of human life, something found in all societies since the advent of agriculture other than the surviving hunter-gatherer ones. As an activity it is a dominant aspect of the lives of the great majority, even if there are a small minority who do not participate. Because work usually produces things of value and transforms the physical world in ways that make human life better by various measures (and in the final analysis make basic survival possible—without organised and purposeful productive action, i.e., work, that would not be possible for most people in most times and places) it is at the base of economic order. It is also one of the foundations of political and social order, because the form it takes structures the human use of time and space and hence social life, and because the way work is organised can take different forms, which in turn shape the way governance and politics are structured.

A central argument of the book is that what most people think of as ‘work’ today, paid employment or jobs (as in ‘she doesn’t work, hasn’t got a job’ or the equation of joblessness and worklessness) is only one of the forms that work can take, a way of organising it that is historically specific and not the most widespread historically, and a way of understanding work and its place in life that leaves out most of the work done today. One point, well made, is that to identify the general category of work with only that work that is done for remuneration is to miss the enormous amount of unpaid work that has always taken place and which by most estimates contributes over half of the value of all work done even now (in the past this figure was higher). Because this kind of work is unmonetized and not part of the exchange economy it does not show up in GDP and is largely ignored by economists. It is also predominantly performed by women, particularly in the modern world (less so than in the past), another reason for the lack of attention.

The heart of Lucassen’s narrative and analysis is an exploration of what we may call the political economies of work. That is, an account of the various ways in which this aspect of human life and experience is organised. These in turn, as he demonstrates, mean several different kinds of social and political order. There is therefore a typology of human society and political order that is determined by how work is organised. These can be further divided by the criterion of how the tools or means of production that are required for work are used and allocated. A very important point is that there are many such systems. A common argument today is that there are essentially two, those involving payment for work and those that do not. This argument, originally associated with radicals and classical liberals, is simply wrong—the reality is far more complex. Many of these systems of work do not involve cash payment, they are ones in which the bulk of labour is not part of a money economy, because the labour itself and often its products as well are not traded. One example is slavery and slave based social and political orders in which work is primarily done by slaves who are not paid for their work. In some slave systems the slaves own and dispose of the means of production (land and tools in most cases) whereas in others the slaves own nothing and the tools and resources they employ are owned and disposed of by others, who may be distinct from the person who owns them. The status and experience of slaves in slavery-based systems varies considerably, with colonial slavery in the Americas an extreme case.

However, slavery is not the only way of organising work that does not involve payment. Another system, identified by Lucassen and deftly analysed, is the tributary economy. In this the means of production (land, tools, seeds, buildings, livestock) are privately owned and disposed of. The producers are not enslaved (although they may be subject to forced labour or corvee as a kind of tax). However, they do not own or dispose of the product of their work, most of which is not sold or traded in a market. Instead, it is collected as tribute by a central authority which then distributes it. This system is historically widespread, being found for example in Old Kingdom Egypt, and Sumer and also in some of the Pre-Columbian American civilisations (but not all of them—the Aztecs for example had a different system). Agricultural systems that are based on serfdom also have only limited payment in money for work although here the degree to which the products are bought and sold varies considerably.

In contrast are the many systems where work is done in return for payment. A key point here is that once again there are many such systems. Wage labour regulated by contract is only one of them and a highly specific one at that. Its prevalence in modern developed societies obscures this reality and also leads us to think that this is the most advanced way of organising work or the best by some criterion. An often-neglected feature of radical classical liberal thinking was the rejection of this belief. The majority of nineteenth century liberals were sceptical of wage labour and the employment relationship or even hostile to them. Instead, they anticipated a system where the great majority were self-employed and owned their own means of production or one where, as John Stuart Mill put it, ‘labour hires capital rather than capital hiring labour’, with work carried on by producer cooperatives. This was an important feature of the Free Soil movement in the antebellum United States, to give just one example. Lucassen devotes a great deal of space to recounting how the contemporary system of waged employment as a way of organising work came about and tracing the often-torturous path that led to this and the resistance it provoked.

This brings us to a central insight of the book. Lucassen explicitly rejects the idea that the various ways of organising work and its product (what we could reasonably call modes of production) can be put into a chronological sequence. He therefore rejects the stadial model of history shared by many modern thinkers including both Karl Marx and Adam Smith, in which there is a succession or sequence of different ways of organising productive activity and above all work, with each one growing out of its predecessor and in some way more advanced or developed. The many different ways of organising work that he identifies often coexist in the same time and place so that many historical societies cannot be clearly assigned to one category or another, even if we can say that one form of work organisation is predominant. Even more important, there is no simple way of saying that one type is more advanced than another and no clear chronological sequence. Instead, what we observe and he describes in his account is a back-and-forth process with movement between the various systems and no clear overall arc, and certainly not a determinative or teleological one.

What then of the much-contested concept of capitalism? Many adhere to the belief that wage labour is an intrinsic and definitional feature of capitalism (a system in which the means of production are privately owned and both they and their product are traded and exchanged in a money economy) and that capitalism so defined is a relatively recent historical phenomenon. (This is an example of the often-overlooked overlap between liberal and Marxist notions of capitalism, which derives from their shared origins in classical political economy—it is the evaluative judgments that differ). Lucassen’s account rejects both of these and eschews the very concept and term capitalism. Echoing the arguments of an increasing number of scholars from all parts of the spectrum (we could mention both Andre Gunder Frank and Deirdre McCloskey, for example) he argues that the concept is badly defined and does not aid our understanding of either history or the present. If capitalism is simply wage labour as the way of organising work or private ownership plus market exchange, then it can be found all over the world and in every period of history, so the concept has little explanatory power. If it is defined very narrowly in an attempt to limit it to times and places where a very specific kind of organisation of work and relation of that to productive resources is found then it is not clear that there are many places that can be put into that box even in the contemporary world. His argument is that instead we should think about the many different ways that work and production have been concretely organised in specific places and times and to try to define ideal types, while recognising that actual historical cases will of course have elements of several of these, even if one is predominant. Rather than thinking of something called capitalism, we should focus instead on systems of waged labour where the people doing the work do not own or control the productive resources that they work with—something that includes both ones where those resources are privately owned and those where they are state owned.

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The focus on work and its organisation is thus a way of putting many debates to one side and looking at patterns and structures of economic, social and political life from a new standpoint. This is very enlightening and both yields insights and generates specific research agendas. One of these is undoubtedly the relationship between work and personal autonomy and liberty, an area that is ripe for new research and the shaking up of too-easily held assumptions. Another is the whole topic in moral philosophy of the ethics of work and its moral standing—what exactly is ‘good work’ for instance? The book contains far more than this schematic account of its central mode of analysis describes. There are detailed accounts of the way work was carried out and structured in a whole range of historical cases, drawn from every part of the world and the whole span of human history since agriculture appeared (hence the way the organising structure of the index is as much geographical as topical). There are also extensive explorations of subjects related to work, such as migration and migrant labour, the difference between long-term and casual work, the gendered perception and organisation of work, it’s connection with time and concepts of time, the contrast between work and leisure and the way the understanding of both concepts and the relation between them changes, the connections between work and welfare systems, and many others. This is a work of enormous richness of content and argument, which anyone interested in any aspect of life will find rewarding.